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Stress Test - The Missing Alphabet
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Stress Test

TortillaHave you ever tried to make a tortilla? If it isn’t part of your culture, probably not! It makes a nice metaphor for teaching so let’s explore it a bit. You basically add a little water to cornmeal and make a ball of dough. The hard part is to pat the ball into a nice, round tortilla shape with just the right thickness. If you don’t press hard enough, the tortilla will be adobe brick-like if cooked. If you press too hard and press too much, you will make holes and your tortilla will fall apart.

We human beings are like that. Neuroscience tells us that we all need challenge in order to learn—but that too much stress will make it difficult for us to think at all.

Consider “high-stakes testing.” We might as well call it “high-stress testing” where teachers, children, parents and administrators are too often publically humiliated and/or lose funding for poor performance. Educating, like tortilla-making takes an expert touch—not extreme pressure.

In addition, these tests are “snapshots” of reading, writing, math and memory that cannot give a complete picture of the true strengths of each child. Even more sadly, they are often based on the skills needed for the past, but not necessarily the present or future.

I was horrified to read in the New York Times that there is a school boasting successful performance on such tests by harassing their teachers and students. The whole school is dedicated to watching over shoulders and requiring those who fail at an academic task to keep doing it until they get it right. To me, this is akin to living with an abusive parent or spouse who demands to get their way at all times. Brain scientists tell us that this kind of situation literally “dumbs down” the brain and actually works against higher-order thinking.

In addition, there is a body of psychological literature that looks at the “side effects” of “success.” Institutions who use techniques like “aversion therapy” where patients are punished for engaging in “unacceptable” behavior tend to have low recidivism rates. But what happens to the patients when they leave the setting? How many tragedies count as side effects?

If you get a chance, watch an expert tortilla-maker at work. (Not me!) See how she pats the dough without destroying it. If you are very lucky, watch an expert educator at work. See how she challenges and encourages without damaging the young learners.

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